Conducting qualitative interviews: The gap between prescriptions and practice

Over the past year I have been examining archival records from the administration of the Federal Writers’ Project, a work relief scheme undertaken as part of the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s in the United States. I have been struck by the disparities in how different people enacted instructions provided to them with respect to the conduct and representation of interviews. But first, some background…

During the 1930s President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration embarked on an ambitious program of funding public works projects – including infrastructure and the arts – in order to get people back to work. The Federal Writers’ Project employed up to 6,500 people  across the U.S. as writers, editors, and fieldworkers to gather information about the diversity of American life. These people collectively generated 1000s of life stories from conversations and interviews with people all over the country, including more than 2000 people who had been born into slavery. Although some professional writers, editors and researchers were employed in the project, the majority of workers was drawn from white collar jobs – and included former teachers, librarians, and secretaries. The federal administrators for the project had to manage the difficult task of developing protocols for 1000s of workers across the country that would assist them in generating the same sort of information from life history interviews, as well as working on the guidelines for how these stories might be represented.

The administrators at the time recognized the problems with how some of the fieldworkers conducted interviews, in addition to how the life stories were presented. Repeated instructions were sent to state directors concerning the kinds of questions that should be asked in interviews, how the interviews should be conducted, as well as how dialect should be represented and the life stories formatted. What stands out to me as I have reviewed the guidelines for how interviews should be conducted is that the prescriptions for good interview practice offered by the federal administrators align with much of what is seen to be “good practice” in the numerous methodological texts available to us today. Fieldworkers were advised to be neutral, and not interfere with their interviewees’ narratives by inserting their own opinions on topics. They were encouraged to use the interview questions in a flexible way that facilitated the telling of stories. They were advised to avoid asking leading questions. Multiple meetings with informants were encouraged in order to gain further detail and check the accuracy of the information collected. Whereas researchers today have the benefit of audiorecording equipment to capture exactly what interviewees say, the interviewers in the 1930s had to rely on writing down as much as possible during the interviews, and developing the narratives from their notes. First-person narration was encouraged, along with deletion of the interviewer’s questions and presence in the narratives developed.

Yet, both during the existence of the FWP, and after it ceased to be funded, the interviews generated were critiqued, as were the “amateur” fieldworkers who conducted them. For example, folklorist Benjamin Botkin, who published a collection of stories generated as part of the Former Slave project (Botkin, 1945, p. xii), wrote:

In spite of instructions against editing or censorship, some narratives show signs of having been retouched. And in spite of instructions against taking sides, the interviewer, in his editorial introductions and asides, his notes and leading questions, often betrays his personal prejudices and sympathies.

The informant himself is often guilty of flattery and exaggeration, of telling only what he wants to tell or what he thinks the interviewer wants to hear.

Still, Botkin regarded the narratives collected from former slaves as important for both sociologists and social anthropologists, for what they had to say about “history from the bottom up” (p. xiii).

In teaching qualitative interviewing, I sometimes observe in transcriptions that come across my desk the very same sorts of issues observed by Botkin and his colleagues. In particular, I refer to the practices of interviewers in posing leading questions, inserting opinions and asides about what participants say during the interview, and more generally, inserting discussions about themselves within conversations. To my regret, I have also been guilty of all of these practices! In spite of 80 years of discussion about how to conduct interviews in ways that enable interviewees to tell their stories unhindered, interviewers still fall prey to the very same problems noted by administrators in the FWP – surely one of the largest interview projects ever undertaken.

What is going on here? Why is there such a gap between the prescriptions of how interviews should be conducted with how they are conducted?

In my view, the gap between prescription and practice may have something to do with how we typically communicate with one another in everyday conversation. Researchers draw on their everyday conversational skills in order to conduct interviews. Without intensive examination and reflection on what one actually does in ordinary conversation, or interviews (Roulston 2016), practices are unlikely to change. In everyday conversation, it is possible to observe different turn-taking practices among speakers and listeners. Some speakers hold the floor and like to dominate conversations and insert their viewpoints, sometimes cutting off and interrupting others. At the other end of the spectrum are people who refrain from speaking, listen intently, and only take turns when another speaker passes the turn to them (e.g., “What do you think Jane?”). Further, on any social occasion in which we meet someone for the first time, or engage with someone about whom we know little – people have different sorts of practices to develop rapport. On one end of the spectrum, there are people who offer little insight into what they are thinking as they listen to another speak. They simply nod their heads, or gaze at another speaker. In contrast, there are people who take very supportive stances of others’ talk, inserting agreement throughout, and providing positive responses to what others say. These sorts of listeners might even insert what Harvey Sacks (1995) termed “second stories” – stories about personal experiences that align with what others have said (e.g., “Oh, that happened to me too… When I….”). Unless consciously checking themselves, speakers who typically provides a lot of verbal support and positive affirmation to others in everyday talk may find it difficult to refrain from interacting this way when conducting interviews.

Clearly, the rich body of methodological writing on qualitative interviewing indicates that there is enormous latitude in what is taken to be a “qualitative interview” – and varies from use of semi-structured interview protocols as well as open and free-ranging conversations. I am not arguing that researchers should not use conversational formats in interviews; nor that interviewers should never discuss their own views and experiences with interviewees. Many methodological texts emphasize that interviews ARE “guided conversations.” My concern here is that interviewers become consciously aware of the conversational practices that they use in interviews, as well as what these do for the kind of talk generated and how it might be used as evidence for research purposes.

Unfortunately, I have seen some interview transcriptions in which interviewers talk just as much, if not more than their participants. In these instances, interviewers appear to be oblivious that interviewees are disagreeing with the premise of questions posed and whose own stories are truncated, not fully elaborated, or questioned because interviewers were far too involved in asserting their own views, opinions and experiences. In these kinds of transcripts, it is possible to see multiple opportunities for follow up questions to elicit relevant information that were missed. When this kind of interview data is stripped of the interviewer’s contributions, it is easy to misrepresent what interviewees have said.

Examining the administrators’ instructions to interviewers in the FWP has reinforced for me the importance for interviewers to think about the implications of their own subject positions in relation to their interviews as well as the need for interviewers to carefully examine their own interactions with participants of research projects.

Kathy Roulston 


Botkin, B. A. (Ed.) (1945). Lay my burden down: A folk history of slavery. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Roulston, K. (2016). Issues in methodological analyses of research interviews. Qualitative Research Journal, 16(1), 1-14.

Sacks, H. (1995). Lectures on conversation. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

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